The Phenomenon of Painting

“In a forest, I have felt so many times over that it was not I who looked at the forest. Some days I felt that the trees were looking at me, were speaking to me. . . . I was there, listening. . . . I think that the painter must be penetrated by the universe and not want to penetrate it. . . . I expect to be inwardly submerged, buried. Perhaps I paint to break out.”     – André Marchand[1]

When does a painter cease her painting? Who determines when a painting is complete? The very word painting, as both a noun and a verb, implies action. A painting never ceases creating and being created by the very nature of the word humanity has assigned to describe it. Or perhaps that word was never assigned, it simply emerged from  the phenomenon of painting, just as the imagery of a painting seems to emerge not solely from the artist or the canvas, but rather from a mysterious intermediate ground between the two. Yet what is that ground? How can we contemplate that which emerges from ambiguity?

Light Iris

Merleau-Ponty writes, “From the writer and philosopher. . . we want opinions and advice. We will not allow them to hold the world suspended. . . . Only the painter is entitled to look at everything without being obliged to appraise what he sees.”[2] Even to sit here and write of painting, as I am doing in this moment, brings a literal concreteness to the ambiguity I am attempting to describe, that which can only emerge between world, artist, and art. When one looks at a painting, or even more so when one looks at a painting that is in the process of being created—perhaps even by the artistry of one’s own hand—there is a presence that exists within it that is beyond the intention of the artist, no matter how controlled the artist may try to be in her execution of the artwork. A painting has a life of its own, perhaps even before the artist ever conceived of it. Merleau-Ponty continues,

I would be at great pains to say where is the painting I am looking at. For I do not look at it as I do at a thing; I do not fix it in its place. My gaze wanders in it as in the halos of Being. It is more accurate to say that I see according to it, or with it, than that I see it.[3]

One sees according to the painting, almost as if the painting had its own will, a will separate from the will of the artist. This returns our thought to the question of how a painter knows when a painting is complete, especially if there is an internally active quality to the very existence of a painting even, or perhaps especially, in its completeness. It is as though the painting already existed before ever a brush was set to paper, and the painting is only complete when the already existent painting and the actions of the painter meet in the middle.

“I think that the painter must be penetrated by the universe,” Marchand writes, “and not want to penetrate it.”[4] A painter, it seems, is a vessel of the world, a receptacle that births the form with which matter is pregnant.[5] “So many painters have said that things look at them,”[6] Merleau-Ponty writes, almost as though those things wish to be born through new media.

The eye sees the world, sees what keeps a painting from being itself, sees—on the palette—the colors awaited by the painting, and sees, once it is done, the painting that answers to all these inadequacies just as it sees the paintings of others as other answers to other inadequacies.[7]

The painting itself, in this quote, seems to call forth the very existence of the painting. The colors are ‘awaited’ by the painting, the painting itself ‘answers.’ When is a painting complete? Perhaps when it wills it to be so.


Work Cited

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Primacy of Perception. Edited by James M. Edie.
Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

[1] André Marchand, qtd. in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, ed. James M. Edie (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 167.

[2] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 161.

[3] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 164.

[4] Marchand, qtd. in Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 167.

[5] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 12.

[6] Ibid, 167.

[7] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 165.

The Horizon of Imagination

My body sits nestled in the tall grass, my feet dangling precariously close to the rough-hewn edge of the cliff. The wind off the sea blows salt mist into the tangles of my hair, while the waves crash below, their sound drowning all others except that of the wind and the pulse of blood in my skull. “Matter is ‘pregnant’ with its form,” the phenomenologist writes, “which is to say that in the final analysis every perception takes place within a certain horizon and ultimately in the ‘world.’”[1] In this moment I try to understand, through my intellect, what his words mean. I realize I cannot grasp it. So I attempt the process again, not based upon my intellectual experience, but rather from the beginning, from the primordial seat of awareness, from a place of perception. There… can you feel it? The cliff, the waves, the sea wind—each pregnant with its own form, impressing itself on my beingingness in this moment. I cannot explain this. But sit beside me on this cliff and perhaps your body will know.

Still at the cliff’s edge, I close my eyes. The sounds of salt and wave, crumbling rock and rushing air currents remain, but much else is now gone. Color collapses to the dark behind my eyelids. Yet something else emerges. Even the sounds begin to fade as I descend deeper into this realm. Although my body remains still nestled in the tall grasses that I twist between my fingers, as I attempt to hold a tight physical grip upon this material present, nearly all my awareness begins to lift away from the Earth’s surface. Darkness surrounds me, broken only by the crystalline lamps of distant stars. I wheel past familiar planets, although some part of me realizes they have never been familiar to me at so close a range. Suddenly I am upon the edge of our solar system. How did I get here? How do I know what this looks like?

Perception is thus paradoxical. The perceived thing itself is paradoxical; it exists only in so far as someone can perceive it. I cannot even for an instant imagine an object in itself. As Berkeley said, if I attempt to imagine some place in the world which has never been seen, the very fact that I can imagine it makes me present at that place.[2]

I am present at the edge of our solar system. I am present at the edge of our solar system? Within less than an instant I am present at the edge of the cosmos. My imagination knows this can exist even if physical reality cannot confirm it from our Earth-bound perspective. What then is the phenomenological stance of imagination, if it can so quickly leap beyond the bounds of the situated horizon?

When I open my eyes I see the gray rain curtain that veils the white line of the Pacific Ocean’s horizon. I close my eyes, and I leap beyond all horizons.

Edge of the Solar System


Work Cited

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Primacy of Perception. Edited by James M. Edie. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964.


[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, ed. James M. Edie (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 12.

[2] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 16.

Saturating Words with Image

A text means nothing to me until it is suffused with image. As I sit with book in hand, the slightly rough texture of the pages meeting the pads of my fingers with a soft sound, I am somehow more aware of the breathing presence of the room around me, of the book’s scent, rather than the black ink words upon the page. Reading a line takes me out of the space in which I sit. Reading another takes me further out, yet also pulls me further into the text. Yet not until the first sentence of the third paragraph does the text ground itself in an image, something I can grasp beyond, or perhaps before, my intellect can take hold of it. The sentence is “The perceiving mind is an incarnated mind.”[1] Reading that line, I cannot doubt my own incarnation. As is written just three pages later, “Before our undivided existence the world is true; it exists. The unity, the articulations of both are intermingled.”[2] I can feel that I myself exist, not because I think, but because I can perceive myself: perceiving my breathing, perceiving touch, feeling, sensuality, this textured book in my grasp.

Sunset Moonrise
Photo by Matthew Segall

I am standing on the precipice of a mountain gazing westward, into the molten fire of the setting Sun. One hundred and twenty degrees to my left, an angle my body can hold within itself as I gaze in both directions, the waxing Moon rises over the further arches of a vermillion and rose stained ridge. I can feel the relationship of Sun and Moon within my body, somehow feeling my heart as the third point in this harmonious triangle. “We grasp external space through our bodily situation.”[3] Standing between rising Moon and setting Sun I know their relationship because my body is in relationship to each of them. “We also find that spatial forms or distances are not so much relations between different points in objective space as they are relations between these points and a central perspective—our body.”[4] As I read each page of Merleau-Ponty’s words they gain meaning only as much as the image of these cosmic luminaries are able to saturate the words.

I am a full participant in this moment. My body is in relationship with these two powerful celestial bodies that light up our world, that pull all of the existence I know forward along its spiraling path. “For us the body is much more than an instrument or a means; it is our expression in the world, the visible form of our intentions.”[5] This seems to hold true not only for my own body, but each body I am able to witness: the flaming Sun, the pregnant Moon, blazing Venus as it becomes visible in the cooling hues of the sky, the point of light that is Saturn that appears not long after Venus makes her debut, and the solidity of the Earth beneath my feet. Each are bodies giving visible form to their intentions.

[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, ed. James M. Edie (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 3.

[2] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 6.

[3] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

Redwood Fog: A First Dip into Phenomenology

The sun’s warmth calls in the fog. The air feels heavy, the world enclosed around me. I can see the droplets of fog moving toward me; I breathe them in, swallow them; the drops cling to my hair, my eyelashes. The sky feels close. The sky does not exist.

As I step off the hard concrete of the sidewalk and onto the soft, leaf-strewn path, the world shifts. The density of the trees now surrounding me begin to block out the reality that I am in the heart of a thriving city. With each step I enter further into a quieter world. My footsteps are muffled and the ground has a certain give, almost an elasticity beneath my feet. Before me, on either side of the path, redwood after redwood stands in silent vigil. Their dark trunks seem quiet, but the further I walk the more I hear new sounds. A slight creaking in the upper, slimmer branches. The softest splattering of water drops on leaves, as the fog condenses on twig and leaf, descending in widening pearls of water. The smallest drops of water can nourish these trees as they drink in through both their roots and branches. The fog lies so heavily upon this city grove that it obscures the uppermost branches of the redwoods, making the height of the trees seem nearly infinite; they disappear long before they end.

As I move toward the heart of this small yet encompassing forest the landscape becomes darker, the few glimpses of light beyond the woods standing out more starkly than the tree trunks themselves. Walking up to one of the redwoods I lay my hand upon its bark. At first sight it seems to be so rough, split open with massive chasms as the tree has grown ever larger over the decades. Yet under my fingers I realize this bark is soft, the fibers feeling like unwoven fabric to my touch. The faintest trace of moss grows upon the outer surface of the bark, fading imperceptibly to the reddish-brown of the tree’s natural hue. Beneath my hand the tree feels so richly alive, yet so still, existing at a pace almost, but not quite, slower than I am capable of imagining.

Redwoods in Fog

As I turn my back to the tree and lean against it in full repose, I see a single leaf fall into my line of sight before settling anonymously upon the forest floor. The ground is everywhere strewn with brown leaves, a full covering that lets off a rich, fragrant scent; yet watching this single leaf fall I recognize that each of these leaves has made the journey from branch to floor in its own time and in its own way. Each one has a story, although perhaps few have a witness other than the tree that released it to the ground.

At last I separate myself from the tree on which I am leaning and continue through the woods to its edge. The pathway opens out; the pathway ends in rose blossoms.